Halloween Animals- Owls, Bats, Toads and Spiders.
Animals of Halloween
Halloween is a favorite holiday of many people in the USA. The only other holiday that trumps Halloween in the area of the amount of dollars spent is Christmas. A good portion of people dress up for Halloween, parties are held, and candy is handed out by the bagful. Carving or painting pumpkins for the occasion is often a family activity. The origins of our current Halloween celebrations are diverse and complex, with its earliest connections to the festival of Samhain. Samhain was originally a festival that was held between the autumn equinox and winter solstice and marked the end of the harvest as well as the slaughtering of livestock for winter stores. It was believed that during this time the boundaries between this world and the supernatural world were thinner, and both fae and spirits of the dead were sometimes able to pass between the two. Costumes were sometimes worn to either imitate or confound the beings that made this journey. It later seems to have merged with the Christian All Hallows Day, a day set aside for honoring saints and praying for the recently departed. It became a belief among many that the day before All Hallows Day, also known as All Hallows Eve, was the last chance for the dead to gain vengeance upon their enemies before moving on to the next world. Some church elders even went so far as to malign the original festival of Samhain by declaring it a night when the Devil and his evil minions (evil witches, werewolves, vampires and the like) roamed the earth with impunity. For many the history of the Halloween is barely a thought as costumes are donned, pranks are played, and Halloween decorations transform our homes. These decorations which include many animals that are now associated with the holiday such as spiders and their webs, bats, toads, and owls. Today I’m going to write a little bit about each of these animals and how they became connected to Halloween.
One of the defining aspects of all of the Halloween myths, from Samhain festivals to now, is the belief that ghosts and spirits are more active during this time. Owls had a part in mythology far enough back to have been found in cave paintings in France as well as Mayan and Egyptian art. They have long been associated with wisdom and in various cultures around the world with death and the transition of the spirit from one plane to another. It’s easy to see why they were associated with death and the supernatural. Their large immobile eyes in addition to the eerie hooting and screeching vocalizations of some owls make them seem mysterious and otherworldly. This, coupled with their silence while hunting (caused by exceptionally broad wings with specialized fringes on the edges of their feathers) could easily trigger the belief that they were associated with the underworld. Owls are one of two orders of raptors, the order known as Strigiformes, and they are exceptional hunters that can kill and eat up to one thousand mice per year, mostly by the cover of night.
Another flying hunter of the night that is associated with Halloween is the bat. Most bats eat insects and fruit. Bats spread fruit seeds far and wide and collectively consume billions of crop-killing and disease carrying insects each night. The diet of insects which they hunt late at night is likely the reason that bats became associated with Halloween to begin with. Bonfires were a prominent feature at Samhain festivals and the light brought out the bugs which made Samhain a bit of a feast for the bats as well as for humans. They could often be found darting about near the flames of the bonfire, while they hunted for insects. At the time it was not viewed as a creepy icon but simply a fixture of the festivities. As the holiday grew darker in connotation, so did the reputation of the bat and parallels were made between bats wings and the wings depicted on devils and demons in illustrations. Folklore in Southern Europe hinted at a connection between Vampires and bats despite the fact that only three out of 1200 species feast on blood; and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1857 cemented that correlation with its assertion that Vampires transformed into bats to travel. The disparagement of these creatures has, unfortunately, led to people hunting them resulting in the loss of many of these flying mammals.
Toads and Frogs
Toads, and to a lesser extent frogs, hopped their way into our Halloween legends through association to another Halloween tradition, the witch. Witches, or rather Wiccans, do celebrate Samhain as an important seasonal holiday, but when the churches of the time twisted the meaning of the holiday into something vile and dark, they also vilified the witches involved. Today when we think of Halloween witches we think of warty faced old women with pointy hats that fly on broomsticks. Toads and frogs are closely connected to witches, however, both the Halloween version and the Wiccans. Frogs and toads are powerful symbols of regeneration, change, and even good luck for Wiccans and because of this frogs and toads were often kept as pets or even as familiars. This association was labeled an “unnatural” affiliation, and some superstitions went so far as to state that toads were the preferred animal shape of Satan and his followers, and that witches could easily turn a man into a toad. The fact that there are a number of highly poisonous frogs and toads in the world, and even a few who secrete hallucinogenic substances from their skin just adds fuel to the fire when it comes to these versatile amphibians and their abominable reputation.
Spiders are probably the easiest Halloween symbol to explain with the least connection to the original beliefs. The spider is not a symbol of Samhain, nor of All Hallows Eve, and yet no Halloween decoration seems complete without a few cobwebs and creepy spiders scattered throughout. Spiders weren’t actually introduced into Halloween until the advent of the “Haunted House”. The haunted house would be an obvious extension of the holiday, as it is connected to the belief that ghosts and spirits are more prevalent during Halloween and All Hallows Day. Old houses that aren’t properly maintained tend to creak and make other spooky sounds, which were often attributed to sad or angry spirits that were unable to move on. Most spiders don’t really survive that far into the fall, but those that do usually do manage to do so dwell in the warmth of caves or man built dwellings, like houses or barns. Unoccupied and unmaintained buildings are a perfect hideout for these little guys, so most “haunted houses” have several cobwebs and at least a few fall spiders. Combine this with the instinctual fear of spiders that most people have to some extent and, whammo.. instant Halloween icon!